WASHINGTON — Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said Monday that the Gulf oil spill has broken into "hundreds or thousands" of oil patches, forcing federal officials to adapt their plans to keep up.
He also said that 1 million plus gallons of chemical dispersants helped break up the oil, sometimes making cleanup easier, but that officials have now become concerned about their toxicity and are cutting back on their use.
And he made clear that the amount of oil flowing from the Deepwater Horizon well 5,000 feet below the Gulf's surface is far greater than previously acknowledged. He said that so much oil was now flowing up the "top hat" containment device from the leak that it is nearing the capacity of a processing ship on the surface and that a second ship would soon be brought in to handle additional oil. Even then, untold thousands of barrels a day of oil are escaping into the Gulf. Nearly 11,000 barrels of oil, from a leak once estimated at just 5,000 barrels a day, were captured in the last 24 hours and live video from the spill shows billowing clouds of hydrocarbons still escaping.
“This spill has disaggregated itself. We're no longer dealing with a large, monolithic spill. We're dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil that are going a lot of different directions,” Allen told reporters at the White House.
“And we've had to adapt, and we need to adapt to be able to meet that threat.”
In the first days of the spill, he said, federal officials were able to control all the burning and skimming of oil from their command post in Louisiana. Now, as the oil spreads in small patches, federal officials have had to open a second command post in Alabama to direct skimming in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
Allen said the breakup of the oil makes it likely that more will make to past protective booms and to the coast.
“We have to deal with the reality that no matter how much boom we have out there, the disaggregation of this slick is going to cause oil to come ashore from time to time,” he said.
Pre-spill plans did not account for the possibility the oil would break up as much as it has.
“It's the breadth and the complexity of the disaggregation of the oil, which I don't think it was accounted for and anticipated in any plans,” Allen said.
Allen suggested there is both good and bad in the breakup of the oil.
“It makes it more difficult. But when it comes ashore, it's not in a mass at a point where you have a huge impact on one place, so I wouldn't even say it's a silver lining because if there's oil on the water, nothing but bad happens. But it does lessen the impact where it does come ashore, because it's not coming ashore in a mass but it's coming ashore at a lot of different places,” he said.
“It's increasing the capacity and complexity of the response.”
Allen said the oil is breaking up both form natural causes such as wind and water currents, and from the chemical dispersants dumped on it to break it up.
“You have currents moving it around, tidal currents as well. So depending on when the oil came to the surface, under what environmental conditions, it could have created a small batch of oil and moved it one direction and then another one another direction,” he said. “And that's what we're dealing with. It's not a monolithic spill.”
Allen also said the dispersants were worthwhile, despite questions about their toxicity and the fact that the breakup of the oil could help it get past skimmers to the shore.
“I believe they're worthwhile. But I think there's enough concern as we approach the million gallon mark regarding the unknown implications of that amount of dispersants, that out of caution, even though we may need it from time to time, say to suppress volatile organic compounds, we need to have a minimum amount of dispersants for using only when it's the most appropriate and we need to use them to achieve a particular effect and then focus all of our dispersant application at the site of the leak.”